JOHNSBURG – After 36 years of saving lives and putting out fires, Alan Robel worked his last shift at the McHenry Township Fire Protection District on Friday.
The 64-year-old firefighter would prefer to stay on the job, though, if it weren’t for the department’s rule that you have to retire before you turn 65.
Robel’s birthday is Saturday.
“At midnight tonight, I’m done,” Robel said during his Friday shift. “But I’m really hoping that later tonight there will be a general alarm so that I can respond up until the last minute.”
Robel and his wife, Judy, joined the Johnsburg Rescue Squad part time in 1977. He was looking for a way to honor his father who had worked for the rescue squad in the 1960s and recently died. In 1989, the Johnsburg Rescue Squad merged with the fire department, and Robel became a part-time firefighter, while his wife became a paramedic.
In more than three decades, Robel witnessed tragic car crashes and homes engulfed with flames. He’s saved lives and has gotten in harm’s way. But Robel, whose full-time job was a lineman for Illinois Bell telephone company for 40 years, said if he could have done it all over again, he would choose to be a full-time firefighter.
“I know I’m going to miss it terribly,” he said. “I’m going to miss the job. But I’ll miss the people more.”
A firefighter’s career is defined by ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs. And Robel’s is no different.
In 1978, his second year on the job, he responded to a car crash where a drunken driver caused a T-bone collision into a vehicle carrying a family of five. The drunken driver and an infant in the other car were the only two to survive.
“Sometimes it’s quite hard, especially when it involves children,” he said. “Or something that’s very senseless. As time goes on you build, not an immunity, but you build up tolerances or a wall to it.”
Robel recalled another time where he had to give CPR to a man who shocked himself after his aluminum ladder touched electric wires.
“When we got there, I started doing mouth-to-mouth, and eventually he survived. But it wasn’t just my efforts. There was a whole crew of us. We’re a team and we work together.”
Robel doesn’t like the spotlight and downplays much of his heroism. But even now, at 64, Robel still is as good as anyone in the department, said his son, Todd Robel.
“He still holds his own,” said Todd Robel, who also is a firefighter at McHenry Township Fire Protection District. “We ran a pretty serious medical call the other day at Walmart and he got right in there and took the vitals and everything just like the first day on the job, except with 36 years of experience.”
Todd Robel joined the McHenry department in 2007. Having been around the firehouse his entire life, it just made sense for him to enter the department, he said.
“It’s in the blood, I guess,” Todd said. “I was conditioned to it at a young age. It’s cool because I work now with everybody I was knee-high to back then.”
In 2003, Alan Robel went on a call for a grass fire and ended up inhaling too much smoke. Robel, who’s asthmatic, had to be briefly hospitalized with coughing and shortness of breath. Then, at age 55, Robel seriously considered leaving the department.
“It was kind of an awakening,” he said. “It was scary for me. And since that time, I’ve been a lot more cautious. A lot more reserved.
“I think the days years ago of being a smoke eater and it being macho to be in a fire without your protective equipment, those days are over.”
Now, with retirement in his sights, Robel and his wife plan to travel and enjoy some much deserved downtime. And Robel said he believes the department is in good hands, as a new group of firefighters are coming in later this month.
“Out with the old, in with the new,” Todd Robel said with a smile.